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march/april 2008

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REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
Back in 1995 I was blown away by Gunning for Ho, a collection of seven very, very good short stories, most of them set in Vietnam during the war, by H. Lee Barnes. All of them featured precisely drawn, realistic, yet off-kilter main characters—the hallmark of good short fiction. The plots took off in different directions in clever, sometimes surreal, ways. In one story, American troops and their NVA adversaries took a long time out from the war to play a baseball game.

Now, a dozen years later, comes Barnes’ Minimal Damage (University of Nevada Press, 184 pp., $24.95), another brilliant, beautifully rendered collection of short fiction. Each piece (there are six short stories and a terrific novella) centers on a veteran of an American war. This time Barnes—a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam and who teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada—spreads the wealth. Three of the main characters, including the guy at the center of the gripping novella Snake Boy, are Vietnam War or era veterans; the others fought in Panama, the first Gulf War, Grenada, and Somalia.

Aside from a compelling main character, each of the stories has an intriguing plot that hums along rapidly. Punishment, which centers on a veteran of the fighting in Panama and the hours leading to his execution on death row, is an especially taut, tense tale. Private, which takes place at basic training at Fort Polk, manages to shine fresh light on all the crazy-DI tales you’ve ever heard (and experienced). Snake Boy kept me on edge to the last sentence.

My highest compliment: I didn’t want any of the stories to end.

FICTION IN BRIEF
The Vietnam War is one theme of the extremely readable M.I.A. (St.Martin’s, 304 pp., $24.95), a dialogue-heavy, character-driven, thriller novel by the Chicago crime novelist Michael Allen Dymmoch. The book is set in the mid-eighties in a Chi-town suburb and revolves around a 17-year-old boy and his mother. The mom’s first husband died in Vietnam before the boy was born; her second also served in Vietnam and was killed doing his State Trooper duty six months before the book opens.

The boy falls for a girl in the next town, a married cop starts coming on to his mom, and she begins to learn more about her new next-door neighbor.

Dymmoch tells the story creatively and well, using very short chapters narrated by the main characters. Things unravel a bit near the end, though, when the mayhem includes three abrupt plot twists. That said, the book is a very good read and contains two well-drawn and worthy (though deceased) Vietnam veteran characters.

Dan Guenther’s Dodge City Blues (Redburn Press, 292 pp., $14.95, paper) is a well-told in-country tale with autobiographical elements in which a Marine lieutenant joins forces with an Australian captain and ROK Marines against the VC. There’s plenty of dialogue and plenty of action and all of it seems quite real. Guenther, a VVA member, is the author of a previous Vietnam War novel, China Wind (1990). He served as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam from July 1968 to March 1970.

Page Brown takes a fictionalized look at the origins of American involvement in the Vietnam War in The Unrequited (Peppertree Press, 453 pp., $34.95), a clever and readable book that zeroes in on the pivotal years following the end of World War II. Brown, who served two tours in Vietnam as a platoon leader, MACV adviser, and Vietnamese Ranger adviser, did his homework. His book follows a series of Vietnamese and French characters whose lives are forever altered as the natives fight for their independence from their colonizers.

Alivia C. Tagliaferri takes on a challenging subject in Still the Monkey (Ironcutter Media, 315 pp., $18.95), a moving novel about a Vietnam veteran who goes through a hellish tour only to suffer emotionally for many years after he comes home. The Vietnam War flashback scenes are well rendered, as is the veteran’s interaction with a Marine who lost both legs in the current war in Iraq.

Dennis R. Daniels’ autobiographical novel, 359 And a Wake-Up (Fundcraft Publishing, 232 pp., $12.95, paper), tells the story of three characters (a West Point LT, an SFC in his second tour, and a disaffected draftee) who battle it out in Vietnam in 1970 in a 196th Light Infantry Brigade company. For more info, go to www.359andawakeup.com

David O. Ferrier’s in-country war novel, Self Inflicted Wounds (1stBooks, 373 pp., $14.95, paper), is based on his two tours of duty flying dustoffs in Vietnam with the 571st Medical Detachment in Phu Bai and Nha Trang from 1967-69, as well as on his work as an outreach counselor for the Anaheim, California, Vet Center. To find out how to get an autographed copy, e-mail the author, a VVA member, at ferrier_dave@yahoo.com

Korean War veteran Eugene Basicili’s novel, Hunting With Tigers (iUniverse, 314 pp., $19.95, paper), is based on events that took place during the 1968-69 Vietnam War tour that his brother, Special Forces Command Sergeant Major Richard A. Basilici, had with the super-secret

CIA Detachment B-57, Project Gamma. Christopher Goffard’s Snitch Jacket (Rookery, 263 pp., $24.95) is supposed to be a comic novel, but I didn’t find much to laugh about in this ultra-noir tale that features a Hell’s Angel-like Vietnam veteran nicknamed “Mad Dog” who wears “a necklace of human ears.” No surprise that Mad Dog gets involved in a murder-for-hire scheme and much mayhem ensues.

VVA Member Theodore Carl Soderberg puts his many years of service in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine to good use in his engaging novel Uncharted Waters (PublishAmerica, 230 pp., $19.95, paper), which is set during Operation Desert Storm.

Retired Army Col. Thomas R. Glodek offers his ideas about why the United States did not prevail in Vietnam in fictional form in The Advisory Team (Vantage, 357 pp., $23.95). Glodek served as a MACV intel adviser in Vietnam in 1968-69.

THE LOST BATTALION REDUX
Charles A. Krohn, who retired as a U.S. Army LTC, was on the ground and in the thick of things as a young intelligence officer with the 1st Cav’s 2nd Battalion/12th Cavalry during the fierce fighting that took place during Tet ’68 near Hue. In the early nineties Krohn wrote The Lost Battalion: Controversy and Casualties in the Battle of Hue, an outstanding book about how his battalion was surrounded by 2,000 NVA, and then, of all things, was ordered to attack without any air or artillery support.

That evocative book shows in stark detail how the 2/12th survived a murderous NVA assault and at great cost routed the enemy. The book, published in 1993, was reviewed in our May-June 1994 issue.

To mark the 40th anniversary of Tet, Naval Institute Press, in cooperation with the Association of the United States Army, has published The Lost Battalion of Tet: Breakout of the 2/12th Cavalry at Hue (208 pp., $23.95), a revised paperback edition of Krohn’s gripping account. In it, Krohn makes some corrections (the KIA figure for the unit was 81, not 60, for example), additions, and “adjustments of interpretation,” as he puts it. And he brings his “lessons learned” up to date from the first Persian Gulf war to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Krohn believes that “inexperience, arrogance, and historical ignorance” on the part of our civilian and military war planners were responsible for what happened in the Vietnam War. Those words, he says, also may be applied to the planning that went into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

MAULDIN ON NAM
Todd DePastino’s Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (Norton, 370 pp., $27.95) is an engaging biography of the iconic, iconoclastic World War II combat cartoonist. It contains an interesting account of Mauldin’s experiences in Vietnam in 1965 and his thinking about the war in the ensuing years. In Pleiku on assignment for the Chicago Sun-Times (and also visiting his Army helicopter pilot son Bruce), Mauldin witnessed first hand the historic February 7 VC attack. That’s the one, along with a parallel attack at Qui Nhon, that led to the Johnson administration’s escalation of
the war.

Mauldin, who was lukewarm about the Vietnam War before he arrived in country, turned hawkish after seeing the war in person. He changed his mind two years later and became an out-and-out dove after witnessing the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Mauldin, who died in 2003 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, was especially critical of the Nixon administration’s war policies.

“He fiercely resisted being labeled ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing,’” DePastino writes. “I think he’s somewhere in the stew of Jeffersonian Conservative, Populist, Libertarian,” a friend of Mauldin’s said.

SPORTS IN 1970
Tod Papageorge’s American Sports, 1970, or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam is a stunning book of photographs that the celebrated Yale University professor took primarily at baseball and football stadiums around the continental United States during that tumultuous year. More than 4,200 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam in 1970, and things were tense at home, especially following the May National Guard shootings at Kent State University.

Papageorge turned his lens on the sporting scene in the 100-plus stark black-and-white images in this book. But these are far from Sports Illustrated glory-of-sport photos. Instead, what we get are images of mostly grim, passionless spectators who seem to embody the national zeitgeist of the Nixon era. The photos “aren’t lyrical, stagy or solid,” Tim Davis writes in an essay in the book. “They are difficult and enraged, and derive their casting, awkward forms from no previous pictures of things, but from a dire need to describe the suppressed rage arcing through the American populace.”

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
When I tell you that U.S. Army Infantry (Universe/Rizzoli, 343 pp., $75) is a big book, I am not being metaphorical. This handsome collection of essays, photos, artwork, and memorabilia—a reader-friendly illustrated history of American infantrymen from 1775 to today—is physically big. It’s a coffee-table-and-a-half book that is literally weighty. You can do bicep curls with it.
The book, edited by Gen. Jerry A. White, has a six-page section on the Vietnam War. “Like Korea,” retired Army Col. William T. Bowers writes, “Vietnam was largely an infantry war of infantry battles and casualties, fought on the ground in challenging terrain.”

Walt Rostow, the national security adviser who played a prime role in shaping Vietnam War policymaking under Kennedy and Johnson, was an out-and-out hawk until the day he died in 2003. British foreign policy professor David Milne does a fine job sketching Rostow’s life and work in America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War (Hill & Wang, 352 pp., $26).

Milne shows that Rostow was a brilliant man, but that he also suffered from the unbending arrogance that was rampant among too many of those who got us into the Vietnam War and dictated its strategy. “Rostow’s unshakable confidence—his lack of intellectual curiosity—played a large part in making a war that was misguided in its conception,” Milne concludes, “and that produced uniformly bleak consequences.”

In his 13th and latest book, military historian Geoffrey Perret makes a case that Presidents Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush had something in common as they pursued three “wars of choice.” Those chief executives took us into war in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, Perret says, in “a time of high emotion” and all three “acted on their own visceral responses, ignoring the advice of the military and of major allies.” Those wars, Perret contends in Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pp., paper, $17.50), were “all launched at moments of national crisis, all of them unwinnable.” And all of them contributed to, as his long subtitle indicates, declining American influence on the world stage.

Carl Oglesby was deposed as president of the radical antiwar group SDS because he was against violent protest or, in the words of the organization’s leadership, he was a “hopeless bourgeois liberal.” Oglesby recounts his time enmeshed in upper echelons of the peace movement in Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement (Scribner, 336 pp., $25), a very readable memoir and an insightful one. The book contains interesting details of a trip the author made to Saigon and Hue in the summer of 1965, as well as an insider’s look at the machinations of the people who controlled SDS and much of the American antiwar movement from 1965-70.

Wayne Mutza’s Green Hornet: The History of the U.S. Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron (Schiffer, 134 pp., $35) is a well-written, heavily illustrated look at the little-known USAF helicopter squadron that supported secret operations conducted by the famed Studies and Observation Group (SOG) in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Mutza, who has written several books on military aviation topics (including Loach! and The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam), served as an Army airborne infantryman and helicopter crew chief in Vietnam.

John J. Gebhart’s LBJ’s Hired Gun: A Marine Corps Helicopter Gunner and the War in Vietnam (Casemate, 384 pp., $32.95) is a memoir of the author’s two years (1965-67) in Vietnam, during which he went on 240 combat missions. Gebhart looks back on his war time in ultra-gung-ho fashion, noting that he “loved all the shooting,” the “endless missions and excitement, the booze, whores, tropical paradise, and all the men I fought with.”

 

 

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